Hanky Panky by Kent Monkman, 2020. Scroll down to choose to view the uncensored image.
Earlier this month, Cree artist Kent Monkman’s painting ‘Hanky Panky’ was unveiled on social media, intending to highlight the “Canadian (in)justice system” and the violence against Indigenous women, girls and Two Spirit people.
The painting features his genderfluid alter ago Miss Chief Eagle Testickle engaging in a “consensual act” (as the artist explained in a content warning) with the current prime minister, half naked and on all fours. Nearby, past prime ministers watch in a nervous huddle. In the foreground, a mountie lies facedown with his backside exposed. A gathering of Indigenous women surround this scene, which takes place in a traditional lodge. They are watching and laughing.
Canadians flooded comment sections with affronted racism that became so charged with harm that the artist closed comment threads or removed posts entirely. Voices of support and criticism came from within Indigenous communities: Indigenous women, cis and trans, queer and straight, spoke out against this scene of “sexual assault” or “revenge rape” (as it has been seen and interpreted) and questioned the ‘sidelined’ positioning of Indigenous women in the painting. Afro-Indigenous and Black critics raised questions about Monkman’s previous work and anti-Blackness.
The artist responded by releasing a public apology, thanking those who came forward with feedback, saying that he had “failed” in his intention to “resist the colonial traumas inflicted upon my own family and so many others for generations” and that he “deeply regretted” harms caused by viewing the painting.
This response piece is one voice among those many who are speaking.
i’m writing this to you, niwiiji bimaadis, my fellow being. i love you so much but I think you’re not seeing me. i love you so much but I think you don’t know me, because i haven’t felt real enough to be seen. this painting ‘hanky panky’ changed that. i want to tell you why.
i’m not speaking for ‘all trans people’, Algonquin or Anishinaabe people or all any-people. brown and visibly Indigenous peoples voices matter. Indigenous trans women’s and cis womens’ voices of every orientation, matter. Indigenous non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, asexual and aromantic peoples voices matter.
i’ve heard you say, niwiiji bimaadis, that you ‘don’t get this painting’. let me tell you what it means to me, a Two Spirit Algonquin Anishinaabe person *melanin-deficit (light-skinned), city-born and non-status*
in the years of inner struggle that culminated in my coming out as a trans gay man, i slowly tore my spirit in half. i stopped going to language classes. i stopped going to powwows. i wouldn’t even drive past the friendship centre. the last time i went to ceremony, the men were over here. the women were over there. the whole four days, i hid in the van and cried. my spirit felt so alive but my body fit nowhere. i loved you so much, niwiiji bimaadis, but there was no place for me to be and it hurt my heart so hard.
after, i kept having this recurring dream about being in ceremony clothed in a black shroud, as though only the invisibility of my body could let the energy of my spirit be fully present, awake, alive and aware.
this shit is so complicated.
when i started transitioning, i stopped walking around on the Rez where I live. now that covid19 has closed the roads and we have checkpoints, i hide in the trunk to come and go, even though i’m technically a resident. i have boobs and a beard and being fetishized for that can be a life or death sentence. it breaks my heart to write those words.
niwiiji bimaadis, being so constantly wary of you makes it so hard to love you, and i love you so much that i may have to move away to keep on loving you.
my partner’s family here love me for who i am. they’ve always used my name and pronouns. uncle came over the other day in a Team Ahkameyimok t-shirt. we shoveled rocks together. my brilliant cousins, my wondrous nieces and nephews, my powerful aunties, my loving uncles: this family’s acceptance helps suspends my belief that i am worth my resolve to stay alive.
but like i said, this shit is complicated.
if you’ve ever had an MRI, you know they ask questions like ‘ever been hit by shrapnel?’ ‘got any history with nail guns?’ that’s because that machine’s magnetism will just pull that metal out through your skin and that is no bueno for your vital organs. since every cell of me is Two Spirit and every cell of me is Anishinaabe, tearing my spirit in half, one half gay and trans, one half Indigenous, didn’t leave either ‘half’ functionally operative. it tore my spirit out through my skin. it left me like a fish gasping on a hot dock.
we use the expression ‘fish out of water’ lightly but if you’ve ever actually seen a fish out of water, you know that sucker is having a bad day. it isn’t pretty. that’s how it can feel when you have to choose between your queerness and your family, your transition and your community, your sexuality or your home. you’re left gasping for breath among white people who cannot understand why you have to struggle so hard. just to breathe.
i long to live in the water. i long for the underwater of Rez dogs and sweetgrass, cigarettes and frybread, and all those stories. and i long for coming out parties at the community hall, marriage blankets over two blushing young mens’ shoulders, and Two Spirit head dancers, and proudly lesbian clanmothers.
we’re swimming in water that has been poisoned by colonial shame, that twisted root from which grows homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and it fucks with our Indigenous minds and obscures our Indigenous vision of each other. it’s only in healing that water that we can heal our minds, so we can be seen, so we can see each other clearly, surrounded and held by the love we are breathing, in and out. water is life.
i know you know that isn’t a metaphor. this shit is real. back to the painting.
yesterday, two things happened. i saw that painting. and i got up the nerve to go to my first language class in ten years. seeing that painting, the congruency of gay symbolism in a lodge (in a lodge!), gave me an image of what my two lives, severed by colonialism, could look like. together. in one life.
as a gay man who has, like a fish out of water, come to know white gay subcultures, i know that hanky code well and i know that hanky panky scene well too. it’s, all kidding aside, so gay. and to me, there’s a strange familiar comfort to its obvious (to me) consensuality and kinky play. the expression on that young white man’s face is eager, nervous and willing.
niwiiji bimaadis, gay men can sometimes have this beautiful way of fucking each other. it is intimate and transparent, and it is raw and fluid and (mostly) honest, in a way that heterosexuality has mostly lost where colonial patriarchy has poisoned the water.
do you remember?
remmeber once, we were all that honest with our bodies because there was no such thing as a ‘priest’, and we felt Spirit moving in each other. remember when Indigenous women laughed all the time like they are laughing in the painting. when we, as Kent Monkman said, did not have to “put each other on trial in the same way the settler (in)justice system functions”. remember when the law was in the lodge, not some white courtroom.
remember when that was the everyday reality of being an Indian?
yeah. me neither. but that’s what this painting made me ask.
many of us have learned that it is a dangerous waste of time to ask ‘what if’ … but our artists, our writers, our singers and dancers, our resistance and our defenders, our poets and playwrights and speakers, our painters, carry the power of ‘what if’ in their art, their writing, their performance. the power of imagining not just what life is, but what it could be, beyond our current reality. we need them to ask that so that we can ask ourselves ‘what if?’
we mostly live in ‘what is’. we live on the defensive, addressing immediate crises of survival. we’re so focused on trying not to drown, when do we ever get to learn how to swim?
when someone asks ‘what if’, that question can give us the mental and spiritual freedom to raise our heads and breathe above the everyday, and maybe even swim around a bit. remember that winter when there was a round dance in the west edmonton mall? remember how we shut down canada when they invaded Wet’suwet’en land? remember how it felt to be held by each other, and swim together in the clean, cold alive water of our b’maadziwin? what if, niwiiji bimaadis, what if?
what if we woke up tomorrow to the world of that painting? what if powerful white men went down on all fours in a consensual act of giving up their power and what if, what if Indigenous women’s authority was so unremarkably unquestionable that they could laugh so fearlessly at a white man’s display of his sexual vulnerability?
in the world of that painting, to take the life of an Indigenous woman, girl, trans or Two Spirit person is a terrorist act that shakes the world. in that world, we are moving back home onto once-stolen land. in that world, we can swim in the river again. in that world, boys with braids can have boobs. in that world, we forget that we once dreamed in english.
it’s not just Two Spirit people who live in two worlds. we all carry memory and vision of what-is world and what-if world.
what if those worlds came together? i would not have to tear my spirit out through my body to sit in a lodge, or sit with you, or introduce you to my sweetheart. my body and my sexuality would not be remarkable or distasteful to you. niwiiji bimaadis, you could love me the way i so fiercely love you.
to me, this painting is a way home. it is an image of where many generations of healing could take us. i feel that world coming and i want to swim beside you, niwiiji bimaadis. i want to breathe love, in and out like water, and swim home to clean, cold, alive water.
i will ask ‘what if’ even if feels offensive or obscene, or like a luxury we can’t afford. i will do my best. i will try so hard. i will make mistakes and i will listen and i will try again.
art should never be safe, but we do not live in safety and when you live on a razor’s edge it’s a fine line. the stakes are life and death. but when we don’t put each other on trial, we’re left with questions instead of verdicts. and questions can teach us to swim.
chi miigwetch, niwiiji bimaadis, my fellow being, for listening.